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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Food Forest Gardening Grows in Rhode Island

Feb 28, 2023 09:31AM ● By Wendy Nadherny Fachon

Fresh figs, kiwi and persimmons are among the wonders of Rhode Island’s local food forest movement, which might suggest the creation of multiple gardens of Eden. Imitating a natural forest ecosystem, food forest permaculture is a rapidly growing trend in home and community gardening. The term “permaculture” is a word coined from the words “permanent” and “agriculture.”

Traditional agriculture centers around annual plants and reseeding year after year, in a two-dimensional plane of rows. In contrast, permaculture focuses on collecting perennials and planting them in layers, to create a more productive yield in a three-dimensional space. These layers create the food forest and include fruit and nut trees, berry shrubs, fruit bearing vines, herbaceous perennials, self-seeding plants and edible ground cover. The plants work together through biological processes to enrich the soil, use excess carbon to advantage, lower climate temperature, improve water retention and self-propagate.

While a lot of work is required for the initial planning and planting of a food forest garden, each year the labor need decreases, as the yield increases. The rising yield brings numerous ecological and home economic benefits. Conventional agriculture is carbon-intensive and relies on toxic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that contaminate the food, soil and groundwater. Permaculture food forest works with nature to manage weed and pest control and to provide multiple sources of natural fertilizer.  Comfrey, for example, is a medicinal herb, which attracts parasitic wasps and spiders that eat cabbage worms and other garden pests; then it dies back in late fall to create mulch and fertilizer for the surrounding plants, and grows back the following spring.

Organically home-grown food is purer, fresher and more nutritious. In general, it allows people to become less vulnerable to the supply chain issues and inflationary prices. A well-established food forest brings ease to home growing. Rather than engaging in the annual tasks of tilling, seeding, watering and weeding, the food forest gardener focuses more on pruning branches, training growth and propagation.

Food forests do need careful planning and lots of patience. Berry plants typically bear fruit within one to two years after planting. Young fruit trees are more affordable than mature ones, however, they take a few years to establish themselves and bear fruit. The planning process begins with envisioning lawn areas and ornamental plants being replaced with desirable fruit and vegetable plants. Once the plan is made, one proceeds forward, step by step, one sequential task at a time. The project can be a small freedom garden, a quarter-acre family food forest or a one-plus acre community garden.

Community Food Forest Gardens

Community food forest gardens provide opportunities to look, taste, learn and grow. Various Rhode Island organizations have already established community permaculture spaces.

Roger Williams Park’s Edible Food Forest, in Providence, is an urban ecosystem designed around permaculture ethics and principles. It serves as a model for ecological urban landscape management that produces market viable fruits, nuts, veggies, fodder, fuel and fiber. The garden features several unusual plants such as hardy kiwi, hazelnut and the American chestnut, which has been bred for resistance to blight. Native plants create a habitat for wildlife and a managed honeybee hive. The garden also demonstrates permaculture techniques, such as herb spirals, mushroom cultivation and hügelkultur gardening, a horticultural technique where a mound constructed from decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials is later planted as a raised bed.

Crossman Park Food Forest, in Central Falls, is a healthful green space created in partnership with Largess Forestry and Voice of the Forest Alliance. The students from Calcutt Middle School and Central Falls High School planted 22 fruit trees and 12 blueberry bushes in the park for anyone in the city to enjoy. This was part of a larger effort initiated by Mayor Diossa to reforest Central Falls and build a healthier community.

Revive the Roots is a nonprofit organization in Smithfield dedicated to creating ecologically regenerative and dynamic social spaces through the education and practice of permaculture. In addition to managing its community garden spaces, Revive the Roots’ cooperatively owned Nuts & Bolts Nursery Co-Op specializes in growing nut trees, fruit trees and other edible perennial plants, which are sold online.

Island Community Farm, in Middletown, is starting to host tours of its food forest this year, where after 10 years, the pawpaw trees and persimmon trees are finally bearing fruit. Supported by Aquidneck Community Table, Island Community Farm demonstrates the viability and joy of small-scale sustainable agriculture.

Where to Learn

While these organizations may host occasional tours and workshops, the Rhode Island TreeCouncil offers a Backyard Fruit Tree Growing course, with seven sessions of experiential learning. Aspiring gardeners can also learn how to grow a surprising variety of fruit in the Rhode Island climate by reading permaculture books, watching YouTube videos and researching specific plants online.

Food Forest Abundance (FFA) is an organization that provides consultations to assist with garden planning. An open format virtual consultation leads to the development of a landscape plan suitable to the client’s environmental conditions—growing zone, soil type, hours of sun exposure and critter challenges. The plan includes plant selection and placement, guild layerings and groupings, structural suggestions, supplier recommendations and step-by-step installation instructions. FFA can also match clients with local installers.

People can also download food forest-related podcasts from the Story Walking Radio Hour archives. The mission of this program is to lead listeners back to goodness, wholeness, climate restoration, environmental health, universal abundance and, perhaps, closer to the Garden of Eden.

Wendy Nadherny Fachon hosts the Story Walking Radio Hour, which presents sustainable living solutions, including food forest gardening, soil health and agrohomeopathy. Learn more at or contact [email protected]